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Eagles gear up for another battle with Forest Hills

For those who can recall even the smallest tidbits from Tyrone’s PIAA championship run in 1999 – and most of those who will be in attendance tomorrow for the undefeated Golden Eagles’ District 6-AA semifinal game at Gray Veterans Memorial Field can – think back to the stiff competition Tyrone faced during the playoff run.
District quarterfinal opponent Penns Valley had one of its best offensive teams in school history. Semifinalist United had taken the Eagles to the woodshed a year before.
In the state playoffs, Sharon featured three Division I recruits, while Mount Carmel brought with it perhaps the most storied small school tradition in Pennsylvania.
But the toughest of all of them – at least in the eyes of Tyrone coach John Franco – was the Eagles’ opponent in the District finals, Forest Hills, which led to an interesting conversation between the coach and his son, junior running back Johnny.
“I told my son Johnny, you have to play in a playoff game against Forest Hills sometime before you graduate,” coach Franco said, “because it forces you to play your best game.”
That’s how much respect Franco has for the Rangers, who bring a 9-2 record into Tyrone tomorrow night to play for the right to go to the District championship.
“We’ve played six times and they’ve all been in the playoffs,” Franco said. “They’ve all been great games, so we have a lot of respect for them. I told our players that when we play Forest Hills, it’s like we’re playing ourselves. Their kids are tough, they hit hard, and they play the game like it should be played.”
Forest Hills coach Don Bailey feels as strongly about the Eagles’ program.
“It seems like every time we play, they’re 11-0,” he said. “They’re well coached, talented, and they play with a lot of heart. Our kids are a lot like that, and that’s why we respect them.”
Niceties aside, there’s still a game to be played, and both coaches feel it will be their team’s biggest challenge of the season. Fourth-seeded Forest Hills rolls in off a 21-14 win over Marion Center last Saturday, while the No. 1 Eagles rolled up Chestnut Ridge 35-0 for their fifth shutout of the season.
For the Rangers, their strength has been their offensive balance, which is highlighted by one of the region’s premier passers in senior Travis Rearick, who has completed 118 of 192 passes for 1,895 yards and 23 touchdowns. A three-year starter, he’s passed for over 5,000 yards.
That creates an interesting matchup against a Tyrone secondary that has intercepted 20 passes, led by Justin Schopp’s eight.
Rearick’s consistency has in turn opened up Forest Hills’ running game, where Jared Kostan has rushed for 997 yards while sophomore Scott Mehall has gained 678.
The Rangers average over 371 yards and 35 points per game.
“We strive for balance,” Bailey said. “But it all goes back to the offensive line. They deserve a lot of the credit.”
That line is the biggest Tyrone has faced through 11 games. It ranges from 245 to 330 pounds and averages around 245, allowing the Rangers to employ an in-your-face power running game that hasn’t been slowed yet, with 33 rushing touchdowns.
For Tyrone, the spotlight will be on senior defensive tackle Tyler Hoover, a legitimate Division I prospect who has heard from schools ranging from Pitt to Penn State to West Virginia. At 6-foot-4, 325 pounds, he’s one of the few Eagle linemen who will have a size advantage, and Franco sees this game as his time to reinforce his all-state credentials.
“It’s his time to take over,” Franco said. “Now is when the schools are going to come to see him play. They want to see him against a great opponent against kids that are the same size as the ones he’ll see at the next level.”
What’s more, Hoover – a four-year starter – is one of the few players on Tyrone’s team who has experience in games as big as tomorrow’s.
That doesn’t seem to bother Franco, who said this team’s reaction to the novelty of winning has been refreshing and “special.”
“I was asked last night if I had to guard against us being cocky because we’re 11-0,” said Franco. “I said maybe last year I did, but this year every win has been a new experience for so many of these kids and a real thrill.”
Tyrone’s experience in the playoffs is limited to a small group of players who have been in some big ones, a nucleus that includes Hoover, Tyler Gillmen, Justin Schopp, James Updike, Donnie Conrad and Johnny Franco.
One player it doesn’t include is quarterback Tyler Golden, who will be making his second playoff start after last week completing 8 of 14 passes for 115 yards against Ridge. But then again, there hasn’t been much that’s bothered the steady Golden, who has completed 55 of 101 passes for 1,202 yards, 12 touchdowns and three interceptions.
His play in his first season as the Eagles’ quarterback has been a major reason why Tyrone was able to follow up last year’s 9-0 regular season with an 11-0 start this year. The play of Franco, Gillmen and Schopp has been another.
Tyrone averages 353 yards per game, led on the ground by Franco and Gillmen. After a 175-yard outburst last Friday, Franco has 1,453 yards on 192 carries and 20 total touchdowns. After an illness kept him out of the first three weeks of the season, Gillmen has come on to gain 712 yards on 107 carries.
Schopp, meanwhile, has 755 receiving yards and eight touchdowns as Golden’s No. 1 option.
“They’re very balanced on offense,” Bailey said. “They throw as well as they run and they have good speed to the outside. To compete, we’ll have to show balance on defense and try to force some turnovers.”
Forest Hills has been adept at doing just that, forcing 27 turnovers, but the Eagles are still in single digits in turnovers with nine.
What all of that adds up to is two teams who mirror each other in more than just statistics.
”We’ll give them the same kind of challenge they give us,” said Franco, who again said he’s noticed something different in his team’s approach to the postseason.
“There’s something in the air I haven’t noticed in a couple years,” he said. “It’s not that they don’t think they can be beat. But our kids believe that if you’re going to beat us, you’ll have to play one of your best games because we won’t give it to you.”
GAME NOTES: Tyrone leads the all-time series 4-2 … the Eagles’ last game against the Rangers came in the 2003 District 5-6 AA championship, with Tyrone winning 31-7 … the other Class AA semifinal is also a matchup of the MAC Nittany Division and the Laurel Highlands conference, with Philipsburg-Osceola traveling to Bishop McCort.